By Xiao Shu, published: July 7, 2014
Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄, pen name of Yang Maodong) was arrested on August 8, 2013, and indicted on June 19, 2014, on charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place.” Specifically, he is accused of organizing a demonstration outside the Southern Weekly headquarters during the paper’s New Year Greetings incident in January 2013, and of planning to hold signs in eight cities in the spring of 2013 calling for officials to disclose assets and for China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But cowardly, the indictment made no mention of his call for press freedom, asset disclosure and the ratification of ICCPR. His lawyer Sui Muqing stated that the case against Guo Feixiong is nothing but blatant political persecution against an influential activist. – the Editor
Guo Feixiong and I have been friends for years. Since I was expelled from the Southern Weeklyby direct order from Beijing in 2011, I have often stayed with him on my visits to Guangzhou to save expenses.
He lived in a residential development called Fame & Elegance Gardens in northern Tianhe District where he bought an apartment– at the time a luxurious one – more than a decade ago when he was a successful book dealer. His apartment, dilapidated after years of neglect, was furnished with only one desk and one chair. When he was imprisoned in 2005 and his wife and daughter subsequently immigrated to the US to get away from constant harassment by the authorities, the apartment was rented to a private daycare facility. To this day, the walls of the living room are still covered with faded childish drawings.
It took guts to stay with Guo Feixiong because he was someone who enjoyed “special protection”: the first floor had a “security office” just for him with five or six guards living there. Everything was on record: who went to see himand for how long. Walking with him into the building, you got a vigilant “eye salute” from the guards. Leaving the building with him, you would not only receive the same “eye salute” but also be trailed by a man ten meters behind. In his apartment, you couldn’t speak loudly, especially not in the living room, because there were listening ears on the other side of the walls.
I was not his only guest. A number of rights lawyers used his apartment as their guesthouse.
During my last stay with Guo Feixiong in February, 2013, I did at least two things. One was to write the first draft of Organized Rights Defense – the Only Way to Bid Farewell to the Era of Stability Maintenance (《组织化维权——告别维稳时代的必由之路》).He was very excited about the ideas in the article and we had a lot of discussions about them. Later, the article was a sensation when it was posted on Sina Weibo, causing the authorities to obliterate all of my accounts across the Internet. Such an accomplishment was surely due to Guo Feixiong’s contribution.
The other thing wasthe preparation for a signature campaign to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which China signed in 1998 to ease its way into WTO but was never ratified. Guo Feixiong and I drafted two versions of the appeal, I a moderate one and he a strong one, and in February we launched the campaign before the annual “Two Meetings”. With the two versions together, we collected over 4,000 signatures and attracted a lot of attention from international media.
When Guo Feixiong was released from jail the 3rd time in September, 2011, I went to see him along with two others: Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山), a senior columnist with the Southern Metropolis Media Group (南方报业), and a college professor. We talked for hours on end; he was still weak and pale but his eyes sparkled. After that, I met him often, on most occasions waiting for him in front of Guangzhou Jiujia Restaurant (广州酒家) near his home, and then we would walk aimlessly and talk about whatever was on our minds. He was so hungry and frantic for new information as though he was going to catch up on all that he had missed during the five years in jail overnight. Every time he saw me he told me new things he had learned. His most important discoveries were the Internet and civil society. He was incensed by his discoveries. “The conditions are so good now, much better than before I went in [to jail]. Society has changed so rapidly,” he enthused over and over again.
Guo Feixiong quickly resumed activism. More importantly, he had begun a decisive transition. He was one of the pioneers of China’s rights movement before his imprisonment in 2007, best known for his role in the rights campaign in Taishi village, Guangdong (广东太石村). This time around though, he would no longer limit his effort to traditional, case-specific rights defense. Instead, he would push to integrate rights defense that seeks justice for individual conflict into a broader citizens’ movement that takes aim at universal civil and human rights .
Guo Feixiong has always been known for defending his own rights at all costs. After he was secretly detained last August, he went on a 25-day hunger strike to protest the illegal arrest and detention. In 2005 in Taishi village, when he was detained for providing legal assistance to villagers, he staged a hunger strike that lasted 59 days. After regaining freedom in September, 2011, Guo Feixiong traveled to Beijing but was kidnapped and forcibly repatriated to Guangzhou by the Beijing State Security(国保). He was furious and managed to slip out away from surveillance and returned to Beijing by train shortly after arriving Guangzhou. He openly announced that he would defend his right to travel freely, regardless of possible retaliation. Perhaps his indomitability deterred his opponents; he was not obstructed the second time he went to Beijing.
This episode can be regarded as acontest of will and a tactical evaluation for both sides, also an important part of Guo Feixiong’s overall mapping of the boundaries.
Previously, he had launched a book salon in Guangzhou that organized friends to read a list of books on the subject of “peaceful political transition.” For each book he wrote a commentary. The salon started off smoothly, each time with twenty to thirty people attending. Over the meetings people discussed topics of democracy and autonomy, observing strictly the Robert’s Rules of Order to avoid dominance of a few. He invited me to give a speech to the salon in May, 2012, after I concluded my academic visit to the National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan.
The salon was quickly met with harassment from the authorities and could no longer be held in the bar used for the meetings. Guo Feixiong’s stubborness struck again: the salon violated neither the Constitution nor the law and it would be held no matter what. If it couldn’t be held in a bar, it would then be held in his apartment. As a result, Guo Feixiong’s desolate home in the Fame and Elegance Gardens became a bustling place. The salon was his attempt to network, and that was probably why he was so excited when he read my essay about organized rights defense. We understood each other.
Through the salon, Guo Feixiong quickly assembled a group of individuals, including several rights lawyer in Guangzhou. For example, lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) had not been part of the rights movement and citizens movement before he met Guo Feixiong. Since then, he has become a staunch supporter of Guo Feixiong and worked tirelessly to try to free him after his arrest last year. Lawyer Sui Muqing was by no means the onlyperson who was attracted to Guo Feixiong and his ideals.
As the most open region in China, Guangdong had been a tad more tolerant of dissent. Before Guo Feixiong’s release, Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明) and YeDu (野渡) had been the leading figures in Guangzhou’s circle of activists. Guo Feixiong’s network building took it to the next level, laying a foundation for it to rise in China’s civil movements. During the Southern Weekly incident in January 2013, activists in Guangzhou took to the street in ways that surprised China and drew notice from the international media – there was Guo Feixiong’s work in it.
His work was not limited to Guangzhou. He traveled around the country to meet dissidents and activists. Everywhere he went, the local stability maintenance apparatus would be on high alert, monitoring his every move and warning those who he planned to meet to stay away from him. But these warnings were met with ridicule and Guo Feixiong was warmly received at each stop where, after a five-year hiatus, he was able to rebuild trust with friends across China.
The most noteworthy trip was the one made in July, 2012, to Xinyu, Jiangxi (江西新余) where Liu Ping (刘萍), Wei Zhongping (魏忠平) and Li Sihua (李思华)had been constantly harassed, tortured, or placed under house arrest for taking part in the local elections of people’s representatives as independent candidates in 2011. Guo Feixiong thought highly of ordinary citizens’ participation in elections and admired the three heroes of Xinyu, deeming them trail blazer for their grassroots activism. He and several colleagues drove hundreds of miles to Xinyu to express their support for the trio, to take photos and videos for future reference, and to prepare for possible lawsuit against local government for their illegal treatment of the three in the hope to deter further use of violence against the three.
There was more to his Xinyu trip, and that is his attention on local elections of people’s representatives. He firmly believes that China’s peaceful transition must begin from making breakthroughs in the local elections, and the civil society must make preparations for it sooner rather than later. In private exchanges with me, Guo Feixiong repeatedly talked about how he would position himself: He would either devote himself to organizing trainings for independent candidates, or campaign as an independent candidate himself to become the first elected mayor of a county in contemporary China. Such is Guo Feixiong’s vision of China’s transition to a democracy.
The constitutional democracy he has advocated, in his own words, “would erase the legitimacy of state, order and development [under the current one-party rule] and replace it with the one and only legitimacy of elections. This is the change to be. It is radical, and it is not gradualism.” However, in terms of operation, he is very cautious.
He is someone who has been badly treated by the Chinese regime: He has been subjected to horrific tortures, beatings and years of imprisonment, but he has not one iota of hatred in him, nor is he inclined to violence. Talking to him or reading his writings, you would be drawn to their peacefulness and moderation. He believes that the very concept of freedom and democracy is based on built-in elements of reason, humaneness , tolerance, goodwill, compromise, and mutual engagement, rather than a distorted and belligerent mindset. And he wrote, “a look at the dozens of countries in the third wave of democratic transition, reconciliation is the undisputed theme.”
Therefore, on the one hand, he strongly promoted civil actions to overcome fear and to fight openly for citizens’ political rights. He saw the need to build a stronger political force among citizens, to establish the leading role of civil society in China’s peaceful transition to a democracy.On the other hand, he does not believe that there are no good people at all in the system and he opposes the monolithic division of system and non-system. In a BBC interview in March, 2013, he even expressed goodwill towards China’s new leaders, this is because he believed that, among the variables to change, apart from citizen opposition, “there is a social variable with a strong forward push that cannot be ignored, that is, the power within the system that recognizes and identifies with the values of a constitutional democracy. If we do not take a naïve, absolutist view that ‘everyone in the system is evil,’…we can assert without hesitation that, just as there has been internal split in any era, there must be a significant number of doers in the system who have been believers of democratic values. They will not stay silent forever and become lost; they will rise at the right time to make an impact. They might even want to take the initiative to effect change and to embrace historic challenges and opportunities, because they too are humans.”
The Southern Weekly incident and the ICCPR signature campaign were Guo Feixiong’s practice of the kind of direct citizen action he advocates in order to build citizens’ political power, and today he is paying a huge price for it: he has committed no crime whatsoever, but he was arrested last August and charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” On June 21, he was indicted.
This is the fourth time Guo Feixiong has been imprisoned. He knows what he is doing. Most of the front runners are stepping stones and sacrifices, he once said openly, and as a front runner, he is prepared to push the boundaries and build structures and spaces [for citizens’ opposition]: “We are willing to be the cannon fodder for freedom and democracy. If this democracy experiment of ours can lead to the civil society and internet communities to go beyond expressions and take actions, then our efforts and sacrifices will not be in vain.”
Guo Feixiong’s home at the Fame and Elegance development is probably covered in dust again. But I believe he will return soon, we will meet in his place again, no doubt a gathering ground for China’s civil political society. Three rounds of imprisonment have not subdued him, and this time will be no exception. He will come out of this ordeal stronger, so will Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, Zhao Changqing and Liu Ping who have shown to the courts and the world their steadfastness in the face of persecution. They will be back and they will be leaders of China’s civil political community.
A tide of history has been formed; any obstructions and crackdowns will end up promoting it by trying to stem it. The crackdown on Guo Feixiong and the New Citizens Movement is but a new footnote to this iron logic. Their actions and their sacrifices will not be for nothing. They will not be cannon fodder but great monuments.
Xiao Shu (笑蜀), the pen name of Chen Min, is a former columnist for the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly and the Chinese magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, and an active participant in the New Citizens Movement. He is currently a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
“‘I Want to Be a Man of My Word’: A Summary of the Guo Feixiong Case and His Political Goals” by his lawyer Zhang Xuezhong
(Translated by Zhang Fan. Translation based on an abridgment of the original essay with the author’s approval.)